Metallica – “Ride the Lightning” (1984)

A 30 year old masterpiece

1984 was a year filled with good and bad. Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was assassinated, the USSR boycotted the Olympic Games and an IRA bomb exploded in Brighton. The same year the MTV Video Music Awards made its debut, “Ghostbusters” and “The Terminator” were popular in cinemas, Wham released “Wake Me Up, Before You Go” and Metallica released their thunderous LP, “Ride the Lightning”.

A year earlier the metal band released their debut “Kill ‘em All” and the metal world welcomed this raw, loud band and their thrash-metal music and things would never be the same again.  Recorded in the cold of Denmark, at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, the album would define Metallica’s sound for the rest of their career.  Produced by Flemming Rasmussen, “Ride the Lightning” would only reach number 100 on the Billboard 200 charts in the US, but in 2012 was certified 6x Platinum, having sold over 6 million copies in the US alone.

2014 celebrates 30 years of this monumental record and Metallica’s domination in the music industry because of it.  The album reflects the band’s tenacity, energy and sheer metal prowess like only a few other metal albums of our time.  Every song has it’s own style and direction yet all eight tracks come together as one, to form a cohesive, incendiary musical masterpiece that has managed to withstand the test of time and still sound as fresh and uninhibited today as it did three decades ago.

With James Hetfield on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Cliff Burton on bass, Lars Ulrich on drums and the newcomer, Kirk Hammett (who replaced Megadeth founder, Dave Mustaine) on lead guitar, this metal militia spent about a month in Denmark writing and recording the tracks for their second album.  Their location influenced the recording process as Hammett described in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine saying, “We didn’t really have anything else to do besides work on music and drink Carlsberg beer.  Being homesick gave us the right amount of, I don’t want to say “depression,” but a little bit of longing that I think made its way into the recording process.”

Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton and Hammett in the Sweet Silence Studio in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1984.

The album begins with a light, melodic acoustic intro on the first track, “Fight Fire With Fire”, which is then abruptly transformed into a mosh-pit inducing thrash-metal monster, with crunchy guitars shredding through all 4:47 of the song and laying the foundation for Hetfield’s menacing voice.  Ulrich pounds away at the drums and Burton’s bass rounds everything off perfectly as Hammett’s guitar weaves in and out.

“Fight Fire With Fire” is the foot through the door and is the fast-paced introduction to the album that grabs your attention and pulls you in with no mercy.  “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a track that has become a fan-favourite over the years with the bell-sound (which was actually made by Ulrich banging a hammer on an anvil) at the beginning, short but loud drum foundation and Burton’s high-pitched and menacing bass.  When the guitars kick in, all hell breaks loose and it’s a good 2 minutes before the vocals are heard.

“Fade to Black” is a personal favourite and is a concoction of styles and sounds that mirror the attitude and complexity of the entire album.  The introductory, acoustic riff followed by Hammett’s lead guitar is a goose bump-inducing beginning that slides into a melodic verse sung by Hetfield’s “softer” side.  The chorus is loud and the guitars raw as Ulrich pounds the drums.  A song that hints at a man contemplating his suicide, “Fade to Black” takes the listener on a whirlwind journey, through a vast cave of emotion, from fear to empathy to anger.  The music compliments the lyrics masterfully and this is the first real “power ballad” that Metallica recorded.  The sporadic and distorted guitars mid-way through the song build up to a phenomenal guitar solo (ranked number 24 on the “100 Best Solos Ever” Reader’s Choice in the September 1998 issue of Guitar World) that brings the song to a metal climax and then slowly fades out, bringing the wild and chaotic journey to an end.

Cliff Burton and James Hetfield riding the lightning, live on stage.

“Creeping Death” is another track that the band enjoys playing live, and the fans enjoy hearing live.  Over 6 minutes long, the song is about the ten plaques on Egypt and again, all 4 band members play significant parts in accompanying the lyrics with adequate music, whether it’s Hammett’s lightning fast playing, Ulrich’s rock-solid drumming or the “Die, by my hand” bridge that gets all the fans at their shows singing along and raising their fists in the air.

The album closes off with the instrumental “The Call of the Ktulu”, a musical masterpiece of nearly ten minutes long (that features Dave Mustaine on writing credits).  The song begins with a light, basic rhythm before the drums and distortion come in and take you on a roller-coaster ride through an operatic-like story, influenced by the “horror fiction genre” book “The Shadow over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft.

The album title was taken from a line in a Stephen King book (The Stand) about a man on death row, who was waiting to “ride the lightning” and the album cover depicts an electric chair being struck by lightning.  The album received numerous accolades and critical acclaim and the fact that 30 years later it’s still heralded as a metal masterpiece, shows that Metallica knew what metal should and would sound like before anyone else did and these 8 tracks, recorded in the bitter cold of Copenhagen, paved the way for their success and influenced many other bands and musicians both then and now.

Metallica in 1984 – Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton.


Read the full Rolling Stone interview with Kirk Hammett and Lars Ulrich looking back on the making of “Ride the Lightning”, here.

For those who haven’t had the opportunity to listen to this metal masterpiece, you can purchase it from iTunes, here.


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